“Negro Sinful Songs” by Lead Belly - album review

features in: Album Chart of 1939Album Chart of the Decade: 1930s

TJR says

What a year it was for Mr Ledbetter, good, bad and ugly. He stabbed a man in a violent altercation, apprehended a bank robber and recorded an album – a suitably unusual occurrence for a highly unusual character. The album was, in fact, especially arranged by Alan Lomax to aid with the legal costs incurred with his recent “skirmishes”. Unfortunate background aside, Lead Belly was on his A-game for this set, an album of works which firmly established him as a major player on the folk scene. Highlights are many and varied. His delivery of “Frankie and Albert” is soul-stirring. The rough and tough “Fannin’ Street” is an education – it was the red light district of political boss Mr Tom Hughes' town, Shreveport, Louisiana. He sings of “the chippies” (prostitutes), working the streets. Conversely, his rendition of “The Boll Weevil” demonstrates the softer side of the man, able to find joy playing ditties for children’s parties, as he often did many years previously. There are many sides of the character shown with these equally fantastic pieces. The major highlight of “Negro Sinful Songs” arrives with “The Bourgeois Blues”, as our man tackles the political hot-potato of the day. Lead Belly recorded the Bourgeois Blues numerous times, firstly on 26th December 1938, accompanied, as usual, by himself on his 12-string guitar. My big problem with all post-1938 versions is that the original line “The White folks is in Washington and they know how, to chuck you a nickle, just to see a nigger bow” was altered to “give a coloured man a nickel just to see him bow”, presumably to avoid causing offence. Despite this disappointing concession, the version re-recorded in April 1939 for this album was nearly as powerful. The song was originally written after Lead Belly went to Washington, D.C. at the request of Alan Lomax, to record a number of songs for the Library of Congress. After they had finished, they decided to go out with their wives to celebrate, but were thrown out of numerous establishments for being an interracial party. The song rails against racism, classism, and discrimination in general, with such verses as “The home of the Brave / The land of the Free / I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie”. The song has been recorded by many other artists, including Pete Seeger and Ry Cooder. It was reworked by Billy Bragg as “Bush War Blues”, and by Mark E. Smith as “Bourgeois Town” on The Fall's “Are You Are Missing Winner” album. It has also been sung by Odetta, most recently on her 2008 tour. These folks ken the score - it’s a true classic of the era and stands as a great reminder of the western world’s disgraceful past. Sinful indeed.

The Jukebox Rebel

A [02:49] 9.0.png Lead Belly - Frankie And Albert [1939 version, part 1] (Traditional, Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax) Folk
B [02:57] 5.7.png Lead Belly - Looky Looky Yonder / Black Betty / Yellow Women’s Door Bells (On A Monday) (Traditional) Blues / Rhythm n Blues
C [03:04] 9.2.png Lead Belly - Frankie And Albert [1939 version, part 2] (Traditional, Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax) Folk
D [03:13] 5.6.png Lead Belly - Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well No Mo’ / Go Down Old Hannah (Traditional) Blues / Rhythm n Blues
E [03:09] 8.8.png Lead Belly - Poor Howard / Green Corn (Traditional - Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax) Folk
F [02:36] 8.4.png Lead Belly - Fannin Street (Traditional, Huddie Ledbetter) Folk
G [03:04] 8.3.png Lead Belly - The Boll Weevil (Huddie Ledbetter) Folk
H [02:49] 6.0.png Lead Belly - De Kalb Blues [1939 version] (Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax) Blues / Rhythm n Blues
I [02:59] 7.2.png Lead Belly - The Gallis Pole (Traditional) Folk
J [03:12] 9.5.png Lead Belly - The Bourgeois Blues [1939 version] (Huddie Ledbetter, Alan Lomax, John Lomax) Blues / Rhythm n Blues
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